What’s Harming Our Wetlands?

Wetlands.
Dead trees are an indicator of wetland degradation

Wetlands play an important role in keeping water clean, absorbing pollutants, and reducing floods. Keqi He, a Ph.D. student in Earth and Ocean Sciences, set out to learn what factors are contributing to their degradation in the southeast United States.

As a remote intern for the Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center, part of the USDA Forest Service, He studied remote sensing data on North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

Keqi He was among nine Duke University doctoral students that received Summer 2020 Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies. Wenhong Li served as faculty mentor.

Read on to learn more about He’s experience.

Keqi He.
Keqi He

Under the guidance of Ge Sun and Steve McNulty at USDA and my advisor Wenhong Li at Duke, I analyzed the Landsat NDVI data during the period of January 1995 to December 2014. I identified the locations and times of the wetland degradation over the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina.

To further validate my findings, I requested the Forest Inventory and Analysis spatial data, [which is] “ground truth” data only available at the USFS in summer. My research further investigated possible causes of the wetland degradation.

We found that most wetland degradation occurred along the coastline around 2015-2016, and saltwater intrusion likely plays an important role in the wetland degradation that happened in the Alligator River.

Currently, I am working on summarizing all the results we got and writing a paper for publication, which will hopefully be able to provide useful information for climate mitigation research on wetlands over the Southeast US, a key goal of the USFS.

Besides the research guidance from Drs. Sun and McNulty, I also got the chance to attend seminars held by USFS and virtually meet with brilliant scientists in a similar field. This not only broadened my horizons, it enabled me to interact with people and no longer feel lonely and bored when I spent the whole day at home alone.

Overall, this grant greatly expands my research abilities on processing satellite data and facilitated my dissertation work. It served as an invaluable experience in my graduate study and research career.

Learn more about Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) and see other Summer 2020 recipients.

Duke Ph.D. Students Receive Grants to Enhance Their Training through Remote Internships

GSTEG grantees.
Top row: Axel Berky, Brianna Elliott, Rachel Coyte, Brooks Frederickson, Jaime Gonzalez; bottom row: Keqi He, Hannah Ontiveros, Julianna Renzi, Dana Wright

Nine Duke University doctoral students have received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) for Summer 2020 from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies.

The goal of this grant competition is to expand the opportunities for graduate students to augment their core research and training by acquiring skills, knowledge, or experiences that are not available at Duke and that will enhance their capacity to carry out original research. In light of constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Summer 2020 request for proposals was revised to focus on doctoral students with only partial or no summer funding; applicants could propose remote internships with a community organization, government agency, NGO, or cultural institution.

Axel Berky, Ph.D. in Environment

Host: Environmental Protection Agency
Faculty Advisor: William Pan

Berky will remotely intern with the EPA’s Center for Public Health and Environmental Assessment. In the first of two main projects, he will join a multidisciplinary team that is developing a platform for the public to interact with information related to the risk of wildfires and smoke exposure. This will consist of helping create interactive maps of human health risk from wildfire smoke that can be easily interpreted and updated to reflect real-time monitoring. In the second project, Berky will contribute to a manuscript on the effect of ambient temperature on end-stage chronic kidney disease patients from the U.S. Renal Data System.

Brianna Elliott, Ph.D. in Marine Science and Conservation

Host: U.S. Department of State, Office of Marine Conservation
Faculty Advisor: Andrew Read

Considered the largest global threat to marine mammals, bycatch is the incidental capture of non-target species in fisheries. For the past year, Elliott has been leading an initiative in partnership with the International Whaling Commission to research the policy response of Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) to reduce marine mammal bycatch in their fisheries. After presenting her research to the IWC’s Scientific Committee this month, Elliott will continue developing this research and a report with recommendations to the IWC to work with RFMOs to address marine mammal bycatch, particularly in the Indian Ocean region. Since the U.S. is an IWC member, Elliott will collaborate with the Department of State through a remote internship focused on the bycatch report and other fisheries-focused policy tasks.

Rachel Coyte, Ph.D. in Earth and Ocean Sciences

Host: Earthjustice
Faculty Advisor: Avner Vengosh

Coal combustion residues (CCRs), including fly ash, are some of the largest industrial solid wastes in the United States. Coyte will work to connect the science behind CCR environmental contamination with the impact that such contamination could have on real communities. She will write a report with findings and produce two literature reviews for Earthjustice. The first literature review will look at the chemistry of ash pond pore water; the second will focus on research that works toward answering the question, how long will coal ash continue to leach contaminants into the water?

Brooks Frederickson, Ph.D. in Music Composition

Host: So Percussion
Faculty Advisor: John Supko

The So Percussion Summer Institute (SoSI) is an international gathering of college-aged percussionists and composers. Normally held over two weeks at Princeton University, SoSI exposes young musicians to the thinking and practices of some of the contemporary-classical music scene’s most lauded composers, percussionists, actors, choreographers, and artists. An alumnus of SoSI, Frederickson will develop an online curriculum. He will create materials for synchronous and asynchronous learning that cover a wide variety of topics connected to the creation and performance of new music. He will also create an online environment that encourages collaboration among participating SoSI students.

Jaime Acosta Gonzalez, Ph.D in Literature

Host: nonsite.org
Faculty Advisor: Michael Hardt

nonsite.org is an academic journal that features writing on aesthetics, politics, and art. Contributors often explore such issues as the relationship of the work of art to the spectator, matters of intention and interpretation, and the social ontology of the work of art. Acosta Gonzalez will serve as an editorial assistant during his remote internship. For the book review section, he will identify new and noteworthy books in the fields of art history, philosophy, literary criticism, and critical theory, then assign reviewers and collate the responses into a readable form for a scholarly audience.

Keqi He, Ph.D. in Earth and Ocean Sciences

Host: U.S. Department of Agriculture
Faculty Advisor: Wenhong Li

Wetlands protect our shores, reduce the impact of floods, absorb pollutants, improve water quality, and provide habitat for animals and plants. However, wetlands are threatened by climate change. In order to understand the processes and driving factors of wetland degradation in the southeast United States, He will remotely intern at the Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center, part of the Forest Service under the USDA. He will examine locations and time of the degradation at a regional scale, using Forest Inventory and Analysis data, vegetation indices from satellite data, and vegetation characteristics from LiDAR data.

Hannah Ontiveros, Ph.D. in History

Host: CWS Durham
Faculty Advisor: Nancy MacLean

Humanitarian organization Church World Service (CWS) is one of nine refugee resettlement agencies in the United States. The Durham office focuses on supporting immigrant and refugee new arrivals in the Triangle area. As a remote intern, Ontiveros will undertake two interconnected research projects. First, she will compile data on CWS Durham activities, funding streams, and spending, as well as on the state of immigrant and refugee populations in the region. Second, she will carry out qualitative research aimed at aligning CWS Durham’s requests for funds with the desires of individual and institutional donors.

Julianna Renzi, Ph.D. in Marine Science and Conservation

Host: National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution
Faculty Advisor: Brian Silliman

To increase understanding of reef ecosystems, the Smithsonian launched the Global ARMS (Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures) program. ARMS are stacks of PVC plates that have been deployed around the world to describe invertebrate diversity. This summer, Renzi will use data from ARMS in Mo’orea to determine the impacts of large-scale coral loss on invertebrate communities in French Polynesia. She will synthesize DNA metabarcoding data (sequences of a small section of organisms’ genomes that is taxonomically distinct), invertebrate survey data, and environmental data that may be influencing invertebrate recruitment.

Dana Wright, Ph.D. in Marine Science and Conservation

Host: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Faculty Advisor: Andrew Read

The eastern population of North Pacific right whale (NPRW) is the most endangered population of large baleen whale. The few remaining whales are thought to feed predominantly on zooplankton on the southeastern Bering Sea (SEBS) shelf. The Bering Arctic Subarctic Integrated Survey (BASIS) contains a rich time-series (1992-2016) of zooplankton and forage fish count data on the Bering shelf during the seasonal period of presumed NPRW foraging. Wright will use the BASIS dataset to investigate which environmental-species interactions (ESI) govern zooplankton community structure on the SEBS shelf, with the ultimate goal to assess whether the ESI conclusions support the current Oscillating Control Hypothesis that describes lower trophic level dynamics in the region.

Four Groups of Duke Faculty Receive Collaboratory Grants for Research on Issues Affecting North Carolina and Global Communities

Yadkin River, NC; solar panels; summary ejectments per square mile in Durham; Bass Connections research in Madagascar.
Yadkin River, NC; solar panels; summary ejectments per square mile in Durham; Bass Connections research in Madagascar

Four groups led by Duke University faculty have been awarded Collaboratory grants for research into pressing local and global challenges.

“From investigations in our own backyard into evaluating water safety and lessening the impact of evictions on child development, to research aimed at increasing solar energy efficiency and minimizing the spread of infectious diseases on a global scale, these proposals speak to our dedication to improving the human condition,” said Provost Sally Kornbluth. “Supporting faculty research is an essential way to advance the fundamental learning and discovery at which we excel, and those investments provide ripple effects that benefit teaching and service.”

The grant period is one year with a possibility of renewal.

Drinking Water Contamination in North Carolina: Water Use, Human Health, and Going Beyond GenX

  • Principal Investigators: Heather M. Stapleton, Nicholas School of the Environment; Lee Ferguson, Pratt School of Engineering and Nicholas School of the Environment

Changes in water availability, increases in pollution, and policy regulations are resulting in substantial challenges for water protection, and consumers bear the social and economic burden when drinking water sources are contaminated. One of the most relevant threats to public drinking water in the U.S. is a class of chemicals called poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). These chemicals made local headlines in 2017 when news stations reported contamination of drinking water wells with “GenX” in New Hanover and Brunswick counties.

In 2018, the state legislature appropriated several million dollars for testing all surface waters across the state. Despite the broad documentation of PFAS contamination, no funding was included to evaluate health impacts on affected communities or to identify sources.

This collaboratory will build a water model to help identify potential point source(s) of PFAS contamination, and underlying variables influencing the water levels, in the Piedmont region. In addition, the researchers will examine the relationship between water levels and biological PFAS levels, and conduct geospatial analyses to determine if poorer health outcomes at birth are associated with areas of higher PFAS contamination. The group will also investigate effects of PFAS on birth outcomes using an animal model, and integrate environmental and human health knowledge into management and policy recommendations regarding water use policies.

Minimizing the Influence of Air Pollution on Solar Energy Production

Particulate matter, including air pollution and dust, has dramatic impacts on both climate and human health. It also reduces solar energy production by about 15% on a global average and as much as 40% in some regions. This current loss in efficiency is estimated to account for the loss of power output valued in the tens of billions of dollars annually, dramatically affecting cost effectiveness and renewable energy access. The problem is not well understood and few studies are available that quantify the impacts, although it will become increasingly important with solar power production expected to increase globally by nearly four-fold over the next 20 years.

This collaboratory will assess the regional impacts of air pollution on solar energy production, determine cost-effective strategies to minimize the influence of particulate matter on solar energy production, and develop and test novel surfaces and coatings that hold great promise in minimizing the influence of deposited particulate matter on solar energy production.

Evaluating and Mitigating the Impact of Evictions and Other Housing Insecurity Issues over Health and Child Development in North Carolina

  • Additional Team Members: Jillian Hurst, School of Medicine; Sarah Dickerson, postdoctoral associate, Sanford School of Public Policy; graduate and professional students

In the U.S., 10-15% of households experience housing insecurity. For families with young children, this number is much higher. Lack of secure housing is associated with a host of health consequences including psychological distress and exacerbating chronic conditions. For children, housing instability is associated with increased problem behaviors, respiratory conditions, infectious diseases, and decreased access to healthcare. In Durham, 16% of children aged 0-8 live in a household where housing costs exceed 50% of the household income—leaving few resources for other needs such as food, clothing, and transportation.

This collaboratory brings together a multidisciplinary team to study how housing insecurity affects children’s health and education and what policy solutions may be implemented to mitigate the associated harms. To inform evidence-based policies and help communities promote population-level health, this study will assess patterns of population movement in Durham County and the relationship of these patterns with housing insecurity, examine the effects of housing insecurity and evictions on the education of children across North Carolina and in Durham County specifically, and investigate the effects of housing insecurity and evictions on children’s healthcare utilization and health status in Durham County.

Identifying Infectious Disease Transmission Pathways for Improved Population Health and Pandemic Preparedness

  • Principal Investigators: Charles L. Nunn, Evolutionary Anthropology, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences; Randall Kramer, Nicholas School of the Environment; James Moody, Sociology, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences; Linfa Wang, Duke-NUS Medical School
  • Additional Team Members: Alma Solis, Ph.D. student in Evolutionary Anthropology; other graduate students

The title of a recent high-profile Commentary in Nature proclaimed, “Pandemics: Spend on surveillance, not prediction.” If resources and time were unlimited, scientists would exhaustively sample wild animals, domesticated animals, and humans, and they would fully investigate the ecological contexts in which transmission occurs; all of these foci are crucial for predicting disease emergence. Given the reality of limited resources, new approaches are needed to deepen understanding of disease transmission pathways from animals to humans.

This collaboratory will use new surveillance tools and apply analytical frameworks from network epidemiology to disentangle the drivers of disease transmission at the human-animal ecological interface. The group’s research takes place in rural Madagascar. Members will collect and analyze blood samples and expand socioeconomic data collection; this research will provide crucial pilot data to increase the competitiveness of external grant submissions, while also providing opportunities for students involved in the research to publish early findings and present those findings at conferences. In addition to collecting data in the field and shipping samples to Singapore for analysis, funding will enable us to develop new analytical pipelines for network epidemiological analyses, including with graduate students on Duke’s campus.

About the Collaboratory Grants

Part of the Together Duke academic strategic plan, Collaboratory grants provide support for groups of faculty seeking to provide solutions to targeted problems in three areas:

  • Energy and water resources
  • Race, religion, and citizenship
  • Population health.

Over time, these thematic areas will likely evolve. Project funding ranges from $20,000 to $200,000 annually. The offices of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies and the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs oversee this seed grant program.

The first round of Collaboratory grants was announced in April 2018. The six groups and principal investigators were Decisions, Risks, and Governance of Geoengineering (Mark Borsuk, Jonathan Wiener, Billy Pizer, Drew Shindell); Innovations in Infrastructure (Megan Mullin, Amy Pickle); The Duke Polarization Lab (Christopher Bail); Understanding the Transforming U.S. South (Kerry L. Haynie, John Aldrich, Linda Burton, Adriane Lentz-Smith, Mark Anthony Neal, Donald Taylor); The Duke University Precision Health and Wellness Initiative (Geoff Ginsburg, Susanne Haga); and A Road Map for Affordable Healthcare in the 21st Century (Nimmi Ramanujam).

Faculty to Pursue Collaborations through 2019 Intellectual Community Planning Grants

ICPG 2019.

A key goal of Together Duke is to invest in faculty as scholars and leaders of the university’s intellectual communities. To foster collaboration around new and emerging areas of interest, Intellectual Community Planning Grants (ICPG) are available to groups of faculty.

These grants cover the cost of food, meeting venues, external speakers or other meeting costs, and exploratory research into potential collaborators at Duke and elsewhere. The offices of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies and the Executive Vice Provost oversee this seed grant program.

For the 2019 calendar year, eight groups received Intellectual Community Planning Grants ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.

Big Data and Social Interactions

Big Data and Social Interactions faculty members.

This group will facilitate interactions among faculty who want to learn how technological advancements and big data can improve our understanding of the ways in which social norms and interactions affect individuals’ and firms’ behavior. The primary goal is to produce sustained interactions and research papers capable of being published in leading scholarly journals. A kick-off event will include a visiting speaker. Subsequent meetings will invite faculty to provide overviews of recent research and discuss new ideas; review colleagues’ early-stage research ideas; and share early work with a guest speaker who is a pioneer in the field.

  • Lead: Jillian Grennan, Fuqua School of Business
  • Chris Bail, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Sanford School of Public Policy
  • Ines Black, Fuqua School of Business, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
  • Ofer Eldar, Law School, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
  • Sarah Gaither, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Sharique Hasan, Fuqua School of Business, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
  • Rachel Kranton, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • David Robinson, Fuqua School of Business, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative

Building Duke’s Community of Theoretical Chemists via a Summer Undergraduate Research Program

Building Duke’s Community of Theoretical Chemists via a Summer Undergraduate Research Program faculty members.

An emerging community of theoretical chemists at Duke is spread across schools and departments. This group has begun to organize a Summer Undergraduate Research Program in Theoretical Chemistry, which will help strengthen the pool of graduate student applicants from North America. The Intellectual Community Planning Grant will enable the participation of more faculty (those who could not fully fund a student on their own) and support team-building excursions. All faculty will present multiple seminars and mentor the summer undergraduate researchers.

  • Lead: David Beratan, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, School of Medicine, Duke University Energy Initiative
  • Hashim Al-Hashimi, School of Medicine
  • Volker Blum, Pratt School of Engineering, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke University Energy Initiative
  • Patrick Charbonneau, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Stephen Craig, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke University Energy Initiative
  • Bruce Randall Donald, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, School of Medicine, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, Duke Center for Genomic and Computational Biology
  • Jianfeng Lu, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Michael Rubinstein, Pratt School of Engineering, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Warren S. Warren, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, School of Medicine
  • Weitao Yang, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke University Energy Initiative

Exploring STEAM (Science, Arts, and Humanities) at Duke

Exploring STEAM at Duke members.

A working group of Duke faculty, staff, administrators, and students will explore overlapping and complementary interests in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, arts, and humanities (broadly referred to as STEAM), and promote more robust interdisciplinary research, coursework, and public engagement in this space, both within and beyond Duke. The group will organize a half-day forum to catalog and describe innovative STEAM activities occurring at Duke and spark new collaborations among faculty, students, staff, and administrators.

  • Lead: Misha Angrist, Social Science Research Institute, Duke Initiative for Science & Society, Sanford School of Public Policy
  • Co-lead: Jory Weintraub, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Project manager: Ariana Eily, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Nicolette Cagle, Nicholas School of the Environment
  • Aria Chernik, Social Science Research Institute, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
  • Claudia Gunsch, Pratt School of Engineering, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University Energy Initiative
  • Jules Odendahl-James, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Nimmi Ramanujam, Pratt School of Engineering, School of Medicine, Duke Global Health Institute, Duke Initiative for Science & Society, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
  • Nina Sherwood, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, School of Medicine, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Kearsley Stewart, Duke Global Health Institute, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Victoria Szabo, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative

Health as an Ecosystem: Expanding Our Imaginations of Health

Health as an Ecosystem faculty members.

In ecology, an ecosystem is a community of living organisms and their interactions with the abiotic environment. Dynamic and complex, they may flourish in settings of balance, diversity, and responsive resilience, or they may flounder in contexts of deficit and disruption. This group will apply the ecosystem concept to health and explore new perspectives on health systems, population health, well-being, and disease. During monthly meetings, members will consider a range of questions and engage in activities whose focus will encompass capstone projects, seminars, and future grant proposals.

  • Lead: John Moses, School of Medicine, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Co-lead: Jennifer Lawson, School of Medicine, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Charles Nunn, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Richard Di Giulio, Nicholas School of the Environment, Pratt School of Engineering
  • Alice Ammerman, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
  • Eliana Perrin, School of Medicine
  • Eric Richardson, Pratt School of Engineering
  • Jan Holton, Divinity School
  • Brett McCarty, Divinity School
  • Bill Walker, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
  • Peter English, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Gopal Sreenivasan, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, School of Medicine, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Norman Wirzba, Divinity School, Nicholas School of the Environment
  • Jon Fjeld, Fuqua School of Business, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
  • Ray Barfield, School of Medicine, Divinity School, School of Nursing, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Warren Kinghorn, School of Medicine, Divinity School, Duke Initiative for Science & Society

Launching a Triangle-Wide Seminar in the Economics of Education

Launching a Triangle-Wide Seminar in the Economics of Education faculty members.

Currently, there is no regular forum for economists from the Triangle to discuss new empirical work on the economics of education. This group will change that by organizing a one-day workshop. Hosted by the Center for Child and Family Policy, the event will include invited presenters, discussants, and a keynote speaker. It will also serve as a means to explore the possibility of launching a year-long seminar series in 2019-2020 on the economics of education.

Marine Medicine: Multidisciplinary Research at the Nexus of the Environment and Human Health

Marine Medicine faculty members.

Marine medicine is focused on research that cuts across disciplines, including cross-species comparative analyses of cancer protective mechanisms, understanding the risk of disease from exposure to environmental toxins, and discovery of new drugs from marine compounds. This working group will convene monthly and invite guest speakers to provide critical feedback on papers and proposals. Members will also host an annual symposium with a keynote speaker and a networking event to establish collaborations between faculty across the School of Medicine and the Nicholas School of the Environment, and create a long-term strategy for sustained interactions.

Parasite-Host Evolution Network Optimization (PHENO) Working Group

Parasite-Host Evolution Network Optimization (PHENO) Working Group faculty members.

Better methods are needed to identify new pathogens or known animal pathogens with the potential to infect humans and cause disease. Given that pathogens transmit through chains of contact, network-based approaches that represent these epidemiological pathways offer great promise. Through regular meetings, this group of faculty and postdocs will investigate the application of network approaches to a wide range of disease systems and aim to develop new and fundable research projects.

  • Lead: James Moody, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Social Science Research Institute
  • Charles Nunn, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Craig Rawlings, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Gregory Gray, School of Medicine, Duke Global Health Institute
  • Chris Woods, School of Medicine, Duke Global Health Institute
  • Meira Epplein, School of Medicine
  • James Herrera, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Dana Pasquale, Duke Network Analysis Center

Social Studies of Science Working Group

Social Studies of Science Working Group faculty members.

The social study of science, often referred to as science and technology studies, is an interdisciplinary field whose scholars explore topics ranging from the ethical implications of data hacking and the politics of nuclear power to questions of personhood emerging from neuroscience. This group will bring together faculty who are interested in the rapid scale-up of research in the biomedical sciences, data and computational sciences, and environmental sciences as well as the increasing overlap of science and technology studies, medical humanities, and environmental humanities. Members aim to build a network of Duke and Triangle faculty and foster linked research endeavors.

  • Lead: Harris Solomon, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke Global Health Institute, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Nicole Barnes, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke Global Health Institute
  • Nima Bassiri, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Paul Bendich, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Rhodes Information Initiative at Duke
  • Mark Olson, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke Initiative for Science & Society, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
  • Cate Reilly, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Gabriel Rosenberg, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Priscilla Wald, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Ara Wilson, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke Initiative for Science & Society

Jonathan Wiener on Interdisciplinary Collaboration

“These projects have been crucial to my engagement with colleagues and students across the university”

Bass Connections team members with Jonathan Wiener.
Photo by Beth Mann: Jonathan Wiener (right) and Christine Hendren (lower right) with Bass Connections students in front of their poster, The Saga of CFCs, Ozone Depletion, and Climate Change

“I came to Duke 25 years ago in order to be part of the multidisciplinary community here,” says Jonathan B. Wiener. “Duke was poised to launch a series of cross-cutting initiatives, and it was my good fortune to be part of creating some of them.”

Jonathan B. Wiener.Wiener is the William R. and Thomas L. Perkins Professor of Law at Duke Law School, Professor of Environmental Policy at the Nicholas School of the Environment, and Professor of Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy. He has been involved in numerous research collaborations involving faculty and students from across the university, including Rethinking Regulation at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the new Center on Risk at the Science & Society Initiative, a Collaboratory on Geoengineering, and six Bass Connections projects.

Recently he reflected on some of the impacts of his involvement in collaborative inquiry at Duke. The following are excerpts from our conversation.


Expanding Networks

These collaborative projects have been crucial to my engagement with colleagues and also with students across the university. [Bass Connections has] enabled me to work with teams to investigate complex topics like protecting the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer and climate, how to assess and manage emerging technologies such as automated vehicles, and how to protect drinking water. [They] also enabled us to bring in speakers from outside Duke to enrich our conversations – for example, environmental diplomat Ambassador Jennifer Haverkamp, and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.

Bass Connections projects are also useful for connecting with students from different schools with different skills. For me, it was a good opportunity to connect with undergraduate students in particular, because most of my teaching is in the Law School, Sanford School, and Nicholas School. Duke’s undergraduates are so impressive, smart, and energetic. Bass Connections invites them to see how research projects are developed and to participate in a research team.

I’m currently working with several people on the governance of geoengineering, including Mark Borsuk, Christine Hendren, and Tyler Felgenhauer in the Pratt School of Engineering, Billy Pizer in the Sanford School, Drew Shindell in the Nicholas School, and Khara Grieger at RTI. Geoengineering is a strategy to prevent climate change, but it poses its own risks, so there is a key need for governance to avoid unwise or harmful deployment of geoengineering. We have written one paper that we’ve submitted to a journal, and we are going to apply for external funding for further research. For the Society for Risk Analysis annual conference, we organized and held a set of sessions on the governance of geoengineering [see part 1 and part 2] that featured speakers from Duke and other universities. We are also planning a Bass Connections project team on geoengineering for 2019-20.

Photo by Ben Shepard: Participants in the Center on Risk “head to head” discussion of AI: Risks and Responses: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Philosophy), Vincent Conitzer (Computer Science), and Jonathan Wiener (Law School and Center on Risk).
Photo by Ben Shepard: Center on Risk discussion on AI risks and responses: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Philosophy), Vincent Conitzer (Computer Science), Jonathan Wiener

We’re starting a new Duke Center on Risk, to be launched in the Science & Society Initiative, which grows out of a Provost’s Office planning grant. In 2018, we held a series of Risk Watering Holes, where more than 25 faculty gave short talks as a way for people to learn about different topics and methodologies. We also asked each speaker to touch on what types of colleagues he or she would like to collaborate with to better address risk. In Fall 2018, we started to hold more in-depth ‘head to head’ talks: so far we’ve held one on risks to Duke’s campus, and one on AI risks and responses. We have also sponsored external speakers and supported some students to go to the Society for Risk Analysis conference. Also, we have begun conversations with a group of undergraduates who want to create a student organization about emerging risks.

Publications from a Team of Researchers

Policy Shock book cover.Bass Connections projects can be very fruitful as funding for a team of researchers. I think it’s most fruitful when students help to design the research and produce a team project report.

Together with Ed Balleisen from the History Department, Lori Bennear from the Nicholas School and Energy Initiative, and Kim Krawiec from the Law School, we recently published a book, Policy Shock, that included a chapter coauthored by student contributors from the Regulatory Disaster Scene Investigation project of Bass Connections. An external grant enabled us to have a series of authors’ workshops with multiple chapter authors. We were able to bring in other colleagues at and outside Duke to broaden our set of case studies – on oil spills, nuclear power accidents, and financial crashes – so we could generate more comparative insights and lessons.

A graduate student in the Law School, Daniel Ribeiro, and I published a paper called “Environmental Regulation Going Retro” as an outgrowth of another Bass Connections project, Reviewing Retrospective Regulatory Review. This paper drew on Daniel’s dissertation research and my earlier work on the same topic.

One of last year’s Bass Connections projects was about adaptive regulation applied to the emerging technology of automated vehicles. Associated with that project, Lori Bennear of the Nicholas School and I are undertaking our own research and writing on the different options for adaptive regulation. We received a grant from the Provost’s Office, and we are writing a paper about how regulations can be designed to be adaptive as we learn more about changing technology, science, and society.

Photo by Braden Welborn: Jonathan Wiener (far left), Lori Bennear (fifth from right), and students on the Bass Connections team on adaptive regulation of emerging technologies host former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx (center).
Photo by Braden Welborn: Jonathan Wiener (far left), Lori Bennear (fifth from right), and students on the Bass Connections team on adaptive regulation of emerging technologies host former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx (center).

Approach to Teaching

I think one challenge has been in orienting everyone, students and faculty, to seeing the Bass Connections projects as collaborative team projects, rather than as conventional courses where faculty teach the students. There is a tendency by everyone to revert to the familiar default model of a professor conveying information to the students, whereas I think Bass Connections projects work best where everyone is a member of the team investigating something interesting, and at the beginning we don’t yet know exactly how we want to proceed.

Another aspect of Bass Connections is that these are team projects with multiple professors, and we faculty have to be able to share the time with each other and to collaborate on designing what the project will cover and what materials we’ll ask people to read. It’s very helpful to have a point person to coordinate that. This person can be a faculty member, a graduate student project manager, or both.

New Collaborative Efforts

Center on Risk logo.We are now launching a new Duke Center on Risk, based in the Science and Society Initiative. This is something I’ve wanted to do for many years, since I was president of the Society for Risk Analysis in 2008. Now is a great time to do this at Duke because it builds on the work that Mark Borsuk, Lori Bennear, I and others have been doing on rethinking regulation, on risk and resilience, and on specific applications and concepts like geoengineering, AI, extreme catastrophic risks, and risk-risk tradeoffs. We are grateful to the Provost for the planning grant and to Nita Farahany and the Science & Society Initiative for giving our center a supportive home.

In addition, we have started planning an event to be held at Duke in November 2020 on the EPA at 50. We have convened a collaborative group to brainstorm how we should organize this, including from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, the Energy Initiative, Rethinking Regulation, our Center on Risk, and faculty from a number of different schools. We may try to do a Bass Connections and/or a Story+ project to engage students in helping to assess the history of the EPA. This EPA at 50 event will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the U.S. EPA in 1970, and it will build on similar events we have held at Duke on EPA at 20, 30, and 40. We’re seeing Duke’s schools, institutes, initiatives, and Bass Connections as all fitting into this collective effort.


See all current initiatives in the Together Duke academic strategic plan, and learn more about these seed funding opportunities:

  • Research Collaboratories (see RFP for projects in Energy and Water Resources; Race, Religion, and Citizenship; and Population Health, due February 15)

First-Year Students Find a Gateway to Interdisciplinary Research and Education

Kenan Ethics FOCUS cluster in front of the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC (photo courtesy of Christian Ferney)

During three decades of success as one of the signature undergraduate initiatives at Duke, the FOCUS program of first-year seminars has continued to struggle with one big challenge: How to enroll more students from the Pratt School of Engineering, which had been part of FOCUS at its beginning but had taken a five-year hiatus.

Pratt’s return to FOCUS this year harkens back to the program’s original vision: go interdisciplinary.

This year FOCUS is presenting three clusters developed in conjunction with the university’s interdisciplinary institutes and initiatives. Two are from the Initiative for Science & Society and the Kenan Institute for Ethics. A third cluster called Global Energy, offered for the first time this year, was the brainchild of Pratt Dean Ravi Bellamkonda and has been organized with support from the interdisciplinary Duke University Energy Initiative. About half of the 30 students enrolled in the energy cluster are Pratt first-year students, the largest enrollment of Pratt students in FOCUS in recent years.

students in the interdisciplinary discussion FOCUS course listen to a speaker during their weekly dinner session (photo by Susie Post-Rust)

Each FOCUS cluster offers a combination of three to four classes linked by a theme. The students meet in seminars but also hold weekly dinners with faculty members. All students in a cluster live in the same residential hall.

An interdisciplinary approach for a FOCUS cluster is not new; in fact, since the beginning, most clusters involve faculty members from different disciplines. Instructors from both the Brain Sciences and Global Health institutes have been involved in past clusters. In past years, Brain Sciences faculty have led clusters on Cognitive Neuroscience and Exploring the Mind.

“The FOCUS program has always been interdisciplinary,” said FOCUS director Edna Andrews, Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Professor.  “It’s just that we are becoming even more interdisciplinary.”

University officials say the involvement of interdisciplinary units helps the program fulfill its mission of starting new students off within “a vibrant and engaging intellectual ecosystem,” said Arlie Petters, dean of academic affairs for Trinity College. It also provides one model for how interdisciplinary units can collaborate with the traditional schools and departments on classroom initiatives.

“Students’ first exposure to a discipline impacts their desire to explore the field further,” Petters said. “Through FOCUS, our undergraduate students are able to experience an academic field through a living-learning-community model that fosters a sense of family and belonging. This is a fundamental early step in creating ties between students and the disciplinary and interdisciplinary opportunities offered by academic units.”

Faculty in both the Pratt School and the Energy Initiative are excited to be part of a program that this year received more than 500 applications for the 15 clusters.  Many admitted students say FOCUS is one of the factors they consider in choosing Duke.

“The problem has been simple and pragmatic, one that everyone acknowledged: It’s been hard for Pratt students to fit FOCUS classes into their first semester,” said Nico Hotz, director of the energy cluster and a Pratt School faculty member affiliated with the Energy Initiative.

Cognitive Neuroscience and the Law students talk with Dean Milton Blackmon during a welcome lunch in Fall 2017. The cluster is an example of how FOCUS clusters traditionally incorporate interdisciplinary study (photo by Susie Post-Rust).

“The dean’s office looked into this and came up with idea of energy,” Hotz said. “As soon as the dean asked me to look into this, I thought of my many contacts with the Energy Initiative. I thought this would be something that would interest students and faculty would want to teach.”

“Everyone at the Energy Initiative recognized that this was a great fit,” said Brian Murray, the initiative’s director and a Nicholas School faculty member. “It can be challenging to engage students before they reach their junior and senior years when they have more electives. The opportunity to begin connecting with students as soon as they arrive on campus is extremely attractive. We hope this experience will extend beyond freshman year, as interested students take advantage of a robust slate of curricular and cocurricular energy opportunities throughout their time at Duke.”

The hope is some of the students will continue on and graduate with certificates in the program. The Kenan Institute has attracted students through its FOCUS cluster successfully for several years; like the energy cluster, Science & Society is offering a cluster on Science and the Public for the first time.

The interdisciplinary units’ academic approach also fits the FOCUS mission to have first-year students doing original research in a seminar setting, said Misha Angrist, the director of the Science and the Public cluster for Science & Society.

We ask first years to think at a high level about important societal problems and not just memorize stuff or absorb facts in an arbitrary way. It’s very much rooted in what’s going on in the world. —Misha Angrist

“The coolest thing about FOCUS is that we’re throwing big questions at students right off,” Angrist said. “I like to quote Princeton biologist David Botstein who has compared the traditional science curriculum to hazing: for three years students stand in cold water while they take foundational courses before they finally get to apply it to interesting questions. FOCUS pushes against that. We ask first years to think at a high level about important societal problems and not just memorize stuff or absorb facts in an arbitrary way. It’s very much rooted in what’s going on in the world.”

That “inverted” approach – which has long been a mark of the FOCUS program – is making its way into more traditional classes as well. Hotz said one reason why creation of the energy cluster was so seamless for the initiative and for the Pratt School is that it fits Pratt Dean Bellamkonda’s effort to remake the first-year educational experience.  The wider changes include creation of the Engineering 101 course that gets students working on large-real world design and engineering questions.

“In the first semester, they get to take very specific and deep dive into a topic they are interested in,” Hotz said. “They don’t have to wait for their junior year.”

With the university’s academic strategic plan pledging stronger support both for FOCUS and for interdisciplinary academic offerings, the future may hold an even stronger connection between the two.

“When I came to Duke 15 years ago, the word ‘interdisciplinary’ was new to my ear,” Angrist said. “But now I feel like it’s at the core of so much of what happens on campus.”

By Geoffrey Mock; originally posted on Duke Today

Images: Kenan Ethics FOCUS cluster in front of the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC (photo courtesy of Christian Ferney); students in the interdisciplinary discussion FOCUS course listen to a speaker during their weekly dinner session (photo by Susie Post-Rust); Cognitive Neuroscience and the Law students talk with Dean Milton Blackmon during a welcome lunch in Fall 2017. The cluster is an example of how FOCUS clusters traditionally incorporate interdisciplinary study (photo by Susie Post-Rust).

Duke’s Newest Faculty Members Are Joining a Robust Interdisciplinary Community

Nine new faculty at Duke

“New faculty are the lifeblood of a robust and dynamic academic community,” says Duke Provost Sally Kornbluth. “As described in our academic strategic plan, our overarching imperative for the next decade is to grow, connect, and empower communities to enhance the creation, delivery, and translation of knowledge. These new faculty will play a valuable role in accomplishing these goals in our core missions of research, teaching, and service.”

Nine new faculty members told the Office of University Communications what motivates them in their scholarship and why Duke is the right place for this work. Duke’s strengths in interdisciplinary scholarship and collaborative inquiry stood out to many of them.

Below, we excerpt brief comments. See the full article, and meet other new faculty highlighted in Duke Today’s new faculty series.

Alberto Bartesaghi

Associate Professor of Computer Science, Biochemistry, and Electrical & Computer Engineering

BartesaghiThe field has changed completely from 13 years ago to today. Now there are many more possibilities. I thought coming to a university environment like Duke would allow me to tap into all the different disciplines.

Here you can talk to people in the math department, the School of Medicine, biochemistry, engineering… pharmacology is on this floor. There is a wider variety of things I need, but especially math, and computer science and engineering. They have a big role to play here.

Brandon Garrett

L. Neil Williams Professor of Law, School of Law

GarrettOne reason that I am so excited to be part of the Duke community is that my work has become more and more interdisciplinary and focused on public policy over the years. Researchers at Duke collaborate so well across the entire university – it is such an innovative place with people dedicated to making a difference in the world through their research.

In my criminal justice research, I increasingly work with psychologists in my work on eyewitness memory and risk assessment, statisticians in my work on forensic science, and governance and finance scholars in my work on corporate crime.

David Gill

Assistant Professor of Marine Conservation, Duke Marine Lab, Nicholas School of the Environment

GillDrawing on tools, theories and approaches from multiple disciplines, I seek to answer questions like: how does marine management affect fish populations and the wellbeing of communities? What are the economic gains from conserving coral reefs and what are the potential losses from inaction?

The Duke Marine Lab has a strong focus on interdisciplinary research and teaching on marine conservation and human-natural systems, and these closely tie into my academic interests.

Po-Chun Hsu

Assistant Professor, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science

HsuMy research looks to tailor the heat transfer properties of wearable devices. From applications in spacesuits to firefighters to everyday clothing, engineering the properties of materials can keep people—or delicate machinery—at the right temperature. We do this by engineering the nanoscale structures of fibers to interact with light or infrared radiation—better known as heat—in a specific way. This requires a wide range of expertise including material scientists, mechanical engineers and physicists.

I came to Duke because it’s a special place where there’s a variety of very talented people in the fields of heat transfer, polymer physics and biomedical applications. It’s the perfect environment to find collaborators and to find inspiration to further my research.

Sally Nuamah

Assistant Professor, Sanford School of Public Policy

NuamahGrowing up in Chicago and attending public schools, I felt like policies were always happening to me, and I did not quite understand why. I made a decision to learn about how the policy process works so that maybe one day I could work to make it better.

On my first visit to Sanford, I was given about 20 to 30 minutes to talk to nearly one dozen faculty members. I went over the time for each person I met with.  I just found each person’s work so important, interesting, and relevant. I knew that these were colleagues that want to do work that matters to them, that want to do work that’s important. They care about the community that they’re directly involved in. That’s the kind of community I want to be a part of.

Adam Rosenblatt

Associate Professor of the Practice, International Comparative Studies

RosenblattAs a professor, I have the power to help shape student experiences. So it’s good to ask: What kinds of doors to I want to open for them? For decades now people have talked about theory versus practice. That’s boring and it’s wrong. We sometimes do a disservice when we present students with a binary — the classroom versus community engagement. I’m more interested in how you make sure both spaces are influenced by each other. How can the classroom and the community work in conversation?

I’ve always taught in interdisciplinary programs, but Duke is a bigger sandbox than I’ve been able to play in before. My students here have a tremendous array of interests, in terms of regions and disciplines.

Marc Ryser

Assistant Professor, Population Health Sciences and Mathematics

RyserBecause it is hard to predict which tumors will turn out lethal, most patients are treated quite aggressively. The big question is: which of these patients are treated for a good reason, because they would eventually get lethal cancer, and how many of these are basically over-treated, for something that would never become symptomatic cancer?

For me Duke is attractive because it provides an ideal environment for my interdisciplinary research at the interface of medicine and the quantitative sciences. There are so many world experts in both areas of research, and there is a lot of data being generated — a very exciting place to be! By developing mathematical and statistical modeling techniques that integrate diverse data sources I hope to foster new bridges between the School of Medicine and Arts & Sciences.

Caroline Stinson

Professor of the Practice of Music and cellist in the Ciompi Quartet

StinsonI’m looking forward to being in an academic community. It struck me during my interviews, when other professors of musicology and music theory wanted to talk to me about projects I’d been involved in, they were excited to talk about the music I was playing – and that’s just within the music department. It’s totally new for me to think about how my work can not only collaborate with other areas in the university but be influenced by, and to influence, people in other areas. And Duke gives me the space to think about the projects that have been in the back of my mind for at least five years, and to dive even deeper into string quartets and collaboration in my work with the Ciompi.

Ismail White

Associate Professor, Political Science

WhiteMy research focuses on African-American political behavior. I try to answer why so many black Americans are so partisan, why so many are Democrats, over 90 percent — that’s an extraordinary amount of support.

The answer to that question seems obvious, you know, it must have something to do with race. I discovered a lot is race-based, but I explain that it’s also sociological, historical and even psychological. I seek to unify the explanation.

One of the reasons I came to Duke is because of the large African-American community in North Carolina. Certainly North Carolina has its share of racial politics, and very interesting racial politics. I look forward to working in the community and getting to know the political environment here.

Photos by University Communications

Duke Researchers Are Developing Market and Policy Solutions for Global Energy Access

Village in Uganda using solar to power refrigerators by Duke University student Andrew Seelaus

Access to modern and reliable energy is something that most of the world takes for granted. But many around the world are living a different reality.

Across sub-Saharan Africa and India, children often complete homework by the flicker of candles and kerosene lamps as wisps of smoke trickle up around them from the stoking of the fire beneath their cooking stove.

Smoky homes and candle-lit homework sessions are the norm for billions without access to modern energy.

We are at a critical moment. Innovative business models, financing arrangements, and policy reforms are coming together in a way that has the potential to eliminate global energy poverty

The Duke University Energy Access Project aims to help achieve the United Nation’s (U.N.) seventh Sustainable Development Goal, which is to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable, and modern energy services by 2030. This new research and policy platform at Duke takes an interdisciplinary approach to developing market and policy solutions for the 1 billion who are still without electricity, another billion lacking reliable electricity, and the more than 3 billion people currently without access to clean cooking technologies.

“We are at a critical moment,” said Jonathan Phillips, Energy Access Project director. “Innovative business models, financing arrangements, and policy reforms are coming together in a way that has the potential to eliminate global energy poverty. The next three years are key to shifting the trajectory to give us a shot at achieving Sustainable Development Goal 7. Duke has much to contribute to this fight.”

Establishing the Energy Access Project

The Energy Access Project was established in late 2017 with a $1.5 million gift from Jim Rogers, former CEO and chairman of the board for the electric utility company Duke Energy, and his wife, M.A. Rogers. The Bass Connections Challenge at Duke University added $750,000 in matching funds to support the project’s goal of accelerating deployment of sustainable energy and empowering the world through expanded energy access. Key Duke collaborators in this effort include the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, the Duke University Energy Initiative, the Sanford School of Public Policy, the Nicholas School of the Environment, and Bass Connections.

The idea for the Energy Access Project began long before 2017, with a two-year collaboration between Jim Rogers and Nicholas Institute director Tim Profeta. Rogers, a long-time advocate for universal electricity access and author of the book Lighting the World: Transforming Our Energy Future by Bringing Electricity to Everyone, served as a Rubenstein Fellow at Duke from 2014 to 2016 after retiring from his CEO post.

In 2015–2016, Rogers led a collaboration with Profeta and Tatjana Vujic, currently director of Biogas Strategy at Duke, which focused on off-grid electricity solutions. This Bass Connections project, a platform for giving students interdisciplinary experience addressing real-world problems, germinated the idea for the Energy Access Project. Vujic and the students created the initial version of the project proposal that Rogers and his wife would later fund.

Understanding the Issue of Modern Energy for All

The Energy Access Project launched in Washington, D.C., in February 2018, bringing together leaders from government, business, civil society, and academia to discuss the biggest barriers to energy access and how to overcome them.

Energy Access Project launch event in Washington, D.C., by Laurence Genon

One of the seven key themes was that more research is needed to strengthen our understanding of the way in which modern energy access relates to education, health, and food security outcomes. Collaborations between researchers and policy makers could facilitate effective planning for communities’ energy futures and help to mobilize local entrepreneurs.

There’s a big gap between what is being evaluated by scholars and the types of programs, projects, and policies being implemented.

With an international research collaborative, the Sustainable Energy Transitions Initiative (SETI), the Energy Access Project staff and students helped to review nearly 80,000 academic articles to map the existing research connecting energy access, technologies, and interventions to different impacts and development outcomes.

“The review points to a troubling pattern,” said Energy Access Project faculty director Subhrendu Pattanayak, who also leads SETI. “There’s a big gap between what is being evaluated by scholars and the types of programs, projects, and policies being implemented.”

This gap—between what we know and what we do—could keep the world from achieving a critical number of these Sustainable Development Goals, Pattanayak said, noting that we must make scientific evidence more practice based by training the next cadre of scholars an practitioners and encouraging impact evaluations of real-life projects, programs, and policy or risk being left in the dark.

Staff are taking on work to help researchers and decision makers make research more accessible to target audiences. In doing so, the project will drive a global research agenda focused on filling key knowledge gaps, in the process deepening our understanding of how energy access relates to other development outcomes. The Energy Access Project is convening researchers to lead integration of diverse disciplines, such as data analytics, with real world energy access applications using tools like satellite imagery and artificial intelligence.

Overcoming Policy, Market Barriers to Access

“Despite the increased interest in the idea of universal energy access, our policy makers and analysts have not quite caught up with the quick-moving world of the business models and financing piece,” said Profeta. “Because this is all so new, there’s a chance for great creative thought on how to get at this problem. Duke has the expertise and experience to find those unique solutions.”

Beyond its research focus, the Energy Access Project is working directly with policy makers on the design of key institutions and policies to support electrification as well as with companies and social enterprises to understand how innovative business models can help reach last-mile customers.

Despite the increased interest in the idea of universal energy access, our policy makers and analysts have not quite caught up with the quick-moving world of the business models and financing piece.

To help the U.S. Congress navigate emerging market financing reform options, Energy Access Project staff assembled an analysis of how a new, more fully-equipped American development finance institution could help fill the global energy financing gap.

Hannah Girardeau, Marc Jeuland, Jonathan Phillips

In their policy brief, released in June 2018 as the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development Act (BUILD Act) legislation continued to move closer to passage in Congress, Energy Access Project staff found that the United States is not fully harnessing the power of private sector-led development, leaving U.S. foreign policy gains—and U.S. Treasury profits—on the table and businesses without the capital to build modern energy systems and other underpinnings of development.

“If just 7 percent of global power investments were focused on where 14 percent of the population lives, universal electrification could be achieved by 2030,” Phillips said, noting the lack of early-stage concessional capital to get projects adequately developed, de-risked, and ready for debt investment. “More risk-appetite capital is needed to mobilize the larger pools of money available through private equity funds, development finance institutions, and other investors.”

The ultimate goal of this effort is to equip governments, investors, and developers to dramatically accelerate rural electrification in an integrated manner, unlocking new economic opportunities for millions of households.

Entirely new energy delivery platforms have the potential to power remote villages many miles from the existing grid. The Energy Access Project is collaborating with CrossBoundary Energy and the Rockefeller Foundation on a new Mini-Grid Innovation Lab to help refine one of these promising models. The partnership is testing innovative new business models for deploying off-grid mini-grids in order to improve the economics of mini-grids and better understand how rural low-income customers can best be served.

“The ultimate goal of this effort is to equip governments, investors, and developers to dramatically accelerate rural electrification in an integrated manner, unlocking new economic opportunities for millions of households,” Ashvin Dayal, Rockefeller Foundation associate vice president and managing director for Smart Power, said in an interview with Solar Magazine about the lab.

Students as Engines of Innovation

The Energy Access Project is interested in “supporting the bubbling ecosystem of ideas and collaboration that’s happening at Duke and around the world,” said Phillips, and mobilizing students is “central to this work.”

The project supports relevant courses, internships, and campus events that build linkages between the Duke student and faculty community and the energy access practitioner and policymaking community.

A commercial area of Dehli, India, by T. Robert Fetter

Shortly after its launch, the Energy Access Project sponsored and helped to judge the Energy in Emerging Markets Case Competition in partnership with M-KOPA Solar. The competition attracted 45 student teams from around the world to focus their business and problem-solving acumen on a real-world challenge facing one of the leading companies in the solar home system sector in Africa.

“The competition helped M-KOPA’s leadership team think through credible options for addressing a difficult regulatory and business model issue while giving hundreds of students an opportunity to wrestle with questions of technology, policy, and community development in an important and rapidly developing sector,” Phillips said.

The Energy Access Project is also supporting Duke science students’ efforts to create an energy access data platform. Through the Duke Data+ program, a team of undergraduates is working closely with Power for All, a leading energy access research and policy nonprofit, to develop machine learning and natural language processing tools to improve visualization of data and information on energy access in developing countries.

“This project is different than other projects I’ve worked on because we are working with an outside client to come up with a solution to a problem which does not already exist,” said Brooke Erickson, a member of the three-person Duke student team. “I feel as though I am truly creating new knowledge and new algorithms instead of just understanding existing algorithms.”

The effort ties into Power for All’s Platform for Energy Access Knowledge (PEAK), which automatically curates, organizes, and streamlines large, growing bodies of information into sharable, data-driven stories for policy makers and researchers alike. The students consult with Power for All to creatively visualize PEAK’s library—using artificial intelligence—to create more effective science communication.

This experience has taught me that there are ways to use computer science and data analytics in every interdisciplinary field.

For these students, the research is allowing them to apply their skills in ways they never thought possible.

“Since I am not specifically studying energy or the environment, it has been extremely eye-opening to work with Power for All and the Energy Access Project,” said Erickson, who is studying economics and computer science. “I have learned about the dire need to expand energy access globally and feel as though I am able to contribute to solving that problem despite my lack of background knowledge in the area. This experience has taught me that there are ways to use computer science and data analytics in every interdisciplinary field.”

By Erin McKenzie; originally posted on the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Studies website. Work on this project is funded by Jim and M.A. Rogers and the Bass Connections Challenge.

Images: Village in Uganda using solar to power refrigerators by Duke University student Andrew Seelaus; Energy Access Project launch event in Washington, D.C., by Laurence Genon; Hannah Girardeau, Marc Jeuland, and Jonathan Phillips; a commercial area of Dehli, India, by T. Robert Fetter